When it comes to peak bagging missions, Colonsay's 100m summits may not be your first thought. But it turns out you can pack a lot of terrain and scenery into that short height, finds Sharon Kennedy, on this surprising round of 22 island peaks. But should it be MacPhie or Macfie? We are still not entirely sure.
I desperately needed a break from work, and my partner Graham was about to head off to Nepal, so a few days adventuring together was called for. We put our outline ideas together to see what jumbled kind of plan we could conjure up. Scotland featured heavily in both of our lists of ideal destinations, and words like 'islands', 'wild camping', 'unknown mountains', and 'within a couple of hours drive from home' were thrown into the mix.
Graham has visited most of the inhabited Scottish islands, and quite a few of the uninhabited ones too, so this was going to be tricky. Then he mentioned that he'd actually never been to Colonsay, and I'd never even heard of it, so we pulled an old Landranger map off the shelf and pored over it. "Not very mountainous, is it?" we agreed. Where first springs to mind when you think of an away-from-it-all long-weekend escape? I bet it's not Colonsay.
Undaunted, we had a look at the SMC District Guidebook to the Islands of Scotland, and found a few hills listed. The Calmac website revealed the possibility of us actually being able to get there, and crucially, off again, within our four-day window, and tantalisingly had a link to a Fiona Outdoors blog post on something called Bagging the MacPhies.
Mountain? What it lacked in height – just 98m – it made up for in other ways including that great game of Guess Which Cairn is Actually the Summit
Although nothing on Colonsay is big enough to be covered on the UKH Hill Finder page, further research revealed that the British Hills App has 21 little yellow triangles on it, all waiting to be turned green. Our rough plan grew into something more substantial.
OK, so Fiona Outdoors mentions 22 MacPhies, but we figured we would sort out that little discrepancy once we were on the island, and besides, we were short of time to do any detailed planning. Once new maps arrived, I plotted the 21 little yellow triangles onto it, ready to go, but we both agreed that this wasn't going to be predominantly about hill bagging. It was more important for us that we had some quality time away, relaxing, wild camping, but treating ourselves to the odd luxury too. Besides, we were going to the seaside, which for a couple of mountain folk like us is actually quite exciting in itself.
Three hours on the ferry from Oban to Scalasaig saw the weekend begin. The sun was dropping in the sky but I had already spotted a likely camp spot on the map for our first night, and I felt sure it would come up with everything we needed. On the way I made sure that we passed over our first summit – Cnoc na Faire Mor. Here the truth dawned on me that I had failed in my planning task. Our stunning viewpoint complete with monument to Lord Colonsay was a mere 70m tall, yet the MacPhies by definition are the hills of Colonsay over 300ft (91.5m). And so it became clear, that the 21 yellow triangles on the British Hills App were not the MacPhies of Colonsay, alas, just a random collection of summits! That helped to explain why it only has 21 summits, when there are 22 MacPhies. Oh, the shame! And my beautifully annotated map with the summits marked and a suggested route between them, was now just a cluttered mess.
At least I came up with the goods for a camp spot and we pitched up looking out to sea with the Paps of Jura catching the last rays of sunshine. Over freeze dried dinner, we revised our plans. Which included not going all out to do all the MacPhies, and just to go slow and enjoy our adventure.
It had a feeling of a wild and remote place, mainly pathless and stunningly beautiful
Saturday morning, the sun shone, and we headed south taking in Cnoc an t-Samhla (93m) which had a track nearly to the summit, then a heathery off-path walk to regain the road south. Next up was Beinn Eibhne which was a rough and craggy mountain. I say mountain and some may disagree but what it lacked in height – just 98m – it made up for in other ways including that great game of 'Guess Which Cairn is Actually the Summit'.
We were also treated to a little gathering of choughs, which we had heard may be around but hadn't really expected to see. From the summit we could see across to the neighbouring island of Oronsay and its MacPhie, Beinn Oronsay, which, as it would involve crossing at low tide, would have to wait for another time when time, tide and bird nesting seasons align. The weather forecast for the Sunday wasn't great, so instead we opted for a circular route for the day via the west coast to the airfield and then on to the Colonsay Hotel, where we had a fine meal and a very comfy bed.
Sunday came along with the promised rain, but really it was just a bit of mizzle. We headed north, our first objective being Carn nan Caorach, which was difficult to get to, pathless and comprising many possible summit options. It was raining which had depleted our enthusiasm somewhat, so we gave up and went up Beinn nan Gudairean instead. It's hard not to be a NIMBY on a hill like this, with a great muddy track nearly to the summit, capped by a great big phone mast, but on reflection it is this mast which brings connectivity to this tiny island community, so you have to take your choices in life. The actual summit is a few metres further on with trig and topograph, though sadly it was too cloudy to identify the points we might have been able to see.
After descending we had a length of road walking across a causeway and then up through some lovely woodlands to Kiloran Bay, a stunning wide sandy beach. We spied more MacPhies through the murk to the north but we had already decided we'd save these for another visit.
Our next MacPhie was a route-finding challenge. "I'm not going up there" was an overused phrase as we approached, looking up the steep, rough hillside, but with a bit of initiative and the help of a sign hidden in the bushes declaring the Path to the Loch, we made our approach on Beinn an Sgoltaire. This was yet another heathery little hill that was a lot of fun and rewarding to climb. The summit is marked by an unusual three peaked cairn and a selection of TV aerials.
We retreated to the loch, climbed an "adventure stile" (the first of several on this trip) and headed for our next three summits peppered among the many lumps and bumps of the northern area of the island, Ben Urugaig (110m), Beinn a' Tuath (120m) and Beinn Bhreac (139m). It was around this time that news of our adventures on the island had spread by the wonders of social media and we were messaged a link to a suggested route around the MacPhies which was very helpful. This area had a feeling of a wild and remote place, mainly pathless and stunningly beautiful.
It was getting to be that sort of time when it seems a good idea to find a camp spot for the night. Descending from Cnoc Mull-araich (100m), we were faced with the problem of too many great choices and spent ages worrying that there would be a better spot nearby. In reality they were all fabulous options. The north coast of Colonsay has relatively small but important sea bird colonies, and some great cliff-top and lower-level walks. Guillemots and razorbills headed out to sea as fulmars glided overhead. We camped on a beach overlooking a small kittiwake colony, falling asleep to the noise of their comings and goings.
Our final day began with a quick nip up Binnein Riabhach (120m), a nearby cliff-top summit for that perfect mountain/coast experience. We made our way around the coast to Lower Kilchatten, after which we promptly got lost trying to leave the road! That will teach us to try and follow someone else's directions. The central MacPhies comprise Carn Mor (135m), Beinn nan Caorach (126m) and Carn na Cainnle (116m) and offered us the best 360 degree views of our walk. Once we had gained our first summit the walking was easier though the stiles required some level of skill to cross. Heading back to Scalasaig was also a bit of a challenge, with the most logical route from Dun Eibhinn being through dense bramble briar which spat us out on the road near to the information plaque about the Dun and its last occupant Malcolm, Chief of the Clan Macfie.
So, is it MacPhie or Macfie? We are still not entirely sure but that's just one of the many fun things about tackling this collection of tough little hills. We left the island content in the knowledge that we'd not finished the full list. It just means we'll have to return again, and hopefully soon.
Getting to Colonsay: You'll be wanting the ferry from Oban - see Calmac. We went as foot passengers and left our vehicle on the Mainland.
Accommodation on the island: There are a range of options for accommodation detailed here, and as well as wild camping, we stayed at the charming Hotel
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